San Antonio Spurs Officially on NBA Finals Collision Course with Miami Heat

Jesse DorseyFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2013

Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash all missed out on at least the final 20 minutes, but the San Antonio Spurs finished up their sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night in Los Angeles, with the Miami Heat as the only other team to put together a sweep thus far.

The Spurs, an injured, hobbling bunch, looked a bit rough coming into the series. They even went out to pick up Tracy McGrady as a bit of a security blanket should a rash of injuries come up to bite them again.

Then the series started.

Tony Parker's shin tendinitis suddenly seemed as if it happened all the way back in December, and the strained hammy of Manu Ginobili was nowhere near serious enough to keep him out of the series.

The biggest concern moving forward will be the health of center Tiago Splitter, who is out for at least a week with a sprained ankle.

Splitter is the real difference-maker on this Spurs roster, and once he improved his free-throw shooting, he was finally able to stay on the floor long enough for his magnificence to shine through.

He's been excellent on the pick-and-roll, both defending it and running as the pick man in the offense, but he also gives Tim Duncan his best running mate since David Robinson.

The two of them form a post combination that has tremendous range, incredible defense and can hit free throws when needed. The Lakers never finished within a single-digit deficit in their four-game sweep, as the Spurs won by an average margin of 18.75 points.

To be fair to Los Angeles, they were without Kobe Bryant, Steve Blake, Steve Nash and Jodie Meeks for at least half of the series, and Metta World Peace had surgery just a few weeks back. To say health was an issue would be an understatement.

That still doesn't negate the fact that San Antonio completely dominated a first-round series for the second straight year and is looking even more impressive than last year's sweep of the Utah Jazz.

Of course, they have the rest of the playoffs to go (looking past any opponent in the postseason would be silly), but with everything that's happened in the past week, San Antonio suddenly looks like the favorite to come out of the Western Conference.

Obviously Russell Westbrook's season-ending knee injury has a lot to do with that notion, but the Spurs' excellence is not of little significance.

They're the first team to advance out of the first round in the West, and they're staring directly across the aisle at Miami.

As far as upcoming matchups go, San Antonio conceivably has the edge every step of the way. Denver and Golden State represent similar foes with different means to the same fast-paced ends, with the Duncan-Splitter combination giving them the advantage in either potential series.

They are both excellent in picking up the cutter off the wing, allowing their guards to over-defend the three from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, or pick up the cutting Andre Iguodala or Ty Lawson on the drive.

OKC, whom they very nearly took to the woodshed last season when they were a visibly worse team, is still the likely opponent in the Western Conference Finals.

Improvement from Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, Matt Bonner and Danny Green, the continued MVP-caliber play from Tony Parker and the comeback year from Tim Duncan make them an even more dangerous squad than before.

San Antonio can pull out a supersized lineup, a small, shooting lineup, or they can go man-to-man with the Thunder and force Kevin Durant to beat them himself.

With Westbrook out, it turns the series from a distinct Thunder advantage to almost a coin flip, with the likely edge to San Antonio.

While the Thunder-Heat matchup is most tantalizing with the rematch factor in play, the Spurs would probably give the Heat the best run for their money, with a pretty good shot at dethroning LeBron James and Co. in the process.